How Peer Advantage Drives Innovation

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of serving on a panel at an event co-sponsored by the Chicago Innovation Awards and Vistage at 1871 in Chicago called “The Best Advice I Ever Got.”  I can’t remember the last time I felt such electricity at a gathering of CEOs, business owners, and their key executives.  The venue, which is described as an entrepreneurial hub for digital startups, just screamed innovation.  The Chicago Innovation Awards, which was established in 2002, serves to shine a bright light on the spirit of innovation that lives within the city of Chicago.  The event certainly delivered!

During our 45-minute panel discussion, I was asked to comment on the research we conducted for our book The Power of Peers and the role peer advantage can play in driving innovation.  So as I’m flying home from the event, I thought I’d share it with you.

Peer advantage is what happens when people engage their peers (preferably outside their company and industry sector) in a group setting that’s highly selective, strategic and purposeful.  A CEO Peer Advisory Group is a good example of a group that experiences peer advantage – peer influence of a higher order!  If you think about innovation as “creativity realized,” our research showed that groups not only provide its members with news ways of thinking (which is great for the creativity part), but even more importantly, because of their culture of accountability, these groups help members implement these new ideas. Without the implementation part, it’s not an innovation, it’s just a wish!

A big thanks to everyone who made last night’s event possible. I really enjoyed learning from the other panelists and meeting Chicago’s innovators!  Very cool!

Sharing A Major Discovery

Carol Tometsko is the Chief Executive Officer and President of Litron Laboratories in Rochester, NY, which she co-founded in 1976 with her late husband Dr. Andrew M. Tometsko.   Starting this company was her husband’s dream. Andrew and Carol both worked at the National Lab in Brookhaven on Long Island. Carol quit her job to complete her undergraduate degree and then she and her husband moved from Long Island to Rochester in 1966 with their 6 week old son Drew.   For the next ten years, Andrew taught and conducted research at the University of Rochester Medical Center in biochemistry and Carol was a stay-at-home-mom earning her graduate degree evenings.

One day Andrew came home from the University and said, “What do you think about starting our own business?”   Carol couldn’t believe her ears. Andrew loved research and teaching, but the politics of academic life just didn’t suit him. She knew he was frustrated there, so when he said, “Let’s do this thing,” she went to her aerobics class, parked on the side of the road on her way home, had a good cry, walked in the door, and said, “Sure, let’s do it.”

Fast forward nearly two decades, and their company, Litron Laboratories, was still in business, largely because they were extremely successful in obtaining government grants. Then, in 1994 when Carol was at the airport, she received a call that Andrew had passed away. She went back to the lab to find two employees who were as grief stricken as she was, and it was in that moment that she decided to continue to run the business.  Carol’s tenacity and passion to improve human health was the reason Litron survived the difficult period after Andrew’s death. Yet, at this point in her life, Carol was still wearing a scientist’s hat and while she considered hiring outside leadership to run the company, she did not.

By this time, Litron had developed a kit for the Ames test, which is one of many genetic toxicology tests that have to be run before a new drug, chemical, or medical device can enter the marketplace. Other scientists at the time were saying, “You know, kits are the way to go because in this day and age, nobody wants to take chemicals off the shelf for fear of contamination.” In 1995, Litron began developing and selling kits, but Carol understood that she couldn’t build a company based on that approach alone. Carol said, “ We knew we had to get involved in new genetic toxicology areas. That’s where we sort of were stumped.”

In 1997, Tom Merkel, a personal friend of Carol’s, suggested she join a CEO peer advisory group. Carol said that it was her group members who taught her the word “collaboration”. Up until that time, her world pitted scientist against scientist in a race for who would arrive at the answer first, so when the group suggested the idea of collaborating with other scientists, she found it somewhat frightening, but an intriguing idea for scaling her business. Carol’s main scientist Steve Dertinger agreed.

Today, Carol is still a member of her group and under her leadership, Litron has transformed from an organization once dependent on government grants into an international technology company providing support to laboratories in 37 countries. Carol did it by stepping outside her company (and the world of science) to make one of her greatest discoveries – the value of peer advantage.

Peer Advantage and the Mountain

Last week, I talked about why declaring victory matters.  As you may remember, it involved using the metaphor of running a marathon to illustrate how we can push through adversity by reframing our circumstances.  Sometimes, especially when we’re part of a team, whether in business or in life, our desired goal can feel more like scaling a mountain than running a race because every day feels like an uphill climb.  Surround yourself with people who can look at this climb in the right way and who are dedicated to your success, and you’ll make it to the summit every time.

Let me share a brief story.  Several years ago, a group of us set out to climb Mt. Teocalli (13,208 ft.) in Crested Butte, Colorado.   We met at the trailhead at 6:00 am to begin what would be about a three and a half hour climb. (The reason for the early departure involved adhering to a rule of thumb that you want to be off the mountain by noon in the event of a summer afternoon thunderstorm. The last place you want to be during such a weather event is on a big rock!)

As we began the climb, our group was very enthusiastic. After about 75 minutes, people started joking (or not) saying, “the view looks pretty good from here” and “should we be concerned about those clouds coming in?”  Despite the light mood, you could see the exhaustion starting to appear on everyone’s faces.  Then a few people began to ask serious questions about whether getting to the summit was realistic.  The climb was a great deal more difficult than everyone had originally imagined.  One member of the group suggested we give it another 20 minutes and see how everyone feels. (In fairness, the climb was not easy). Twenty minutes later, the summit looked no closer and the terrain was only getting steeper.

Getting to the top was looking like a losing battle.  Then someone suggested that rather than stare at the summit, we simply take note of where we are, climb for 15 more minutes, and reassess.  The group reluctantly agreed.  After 15 minutes, the summit didn’t look any more attainable, but when we looked behind us to find the spot we just came from, we were astonished at our progress.  So much so that it not only sparked a surge in our mental and physical energy, but also (and best of all) put a stop to the complaining.

To this day, I can’t recall a more spectacular view  – largely because of the way we persevered as a group.  The best part, is that to a person, we continue to draw upon this experience in our daily lives, regardless of the challenge.  And we share our perspective with others, so they can climb their own mountain – whatever that may be.   This is what peer advantage is all about.  If you have a story you’d like to share about how your peers helped you meet a difficult challenge and/or achieve a lofty goal, we’d love to hear it!

 

Why Declaring Victory Matters

The wonderful thing about surrounding yourself with really great people is that they will teach you techniques for meeting tough challenges in life and in business that can be transformational. It’s what peer advantage is all about. Here’s an example of a small change in mindset that can deliver big results whether you’re running a marathon or embarking on a major strategic initiative at your company.

I was in my late 30s when I ran my first marathon. At the end of that race, I swore I’d never do it again – only to run 12 more of them over the next five years. Sometimes on long run days or even during a few races, if I was either not feeling 100% physically or just mentally beaten down by the distance, I would stop and walk for awhile, run until I couldn’t run anymore, and walk again. I’d repeat the process until I reached the end of my training run or, in the case of a race, the finish line. This is how most people who are determined to finish do so when such a situation arises – when you’re just having one of those days. While I may have finished, it was not only a debilitating experience during the run, but it didn’t help my confidence or do much to build my mental toughness for next time.

A fellow runner told me that this can happen to anyone, but that I was thinking about it all wrong. I was told that if you have to stop and walk, that’s fine, but when you start running again, don’t run until can’t go another step. When you do that, you’re engaging in a mental exercise of repeated failures.   Instead, when you feel good enough to start running again, look ahead of you and spot a tree or a stop sign. Set that as your goal. Run to it and declare victory. Start walking again and when you’re ready, identify another marker. Run to that and call it a win. He told me that the difference between declaring victory and succumbing to repeated defeats will help me finish more quickly and with a healthier attitude. It will put me in control of the run instead of the run being in control of me. And as a result, will actually bolster my confidence for the future. Of course, he was right. It works brilliantly.

Now think about this from a business perspective. You set a lofty goal, have a solid plan to achieve that goal, and then set forth on your journey with all the energy in the world. As you run into difficulties along the way, your enthusiasm gives way to your current circumstances and the reality of the long slog ahead.  You start to believe that the situation is controlling you versus the other way around. When this happens, don’t be afraid to walk for a bit, set a short-term goal, achieve that goal, declare victory, and set a new short-term goal. John Kotter has written extensively about the importance of recognizing small wins. The running advice I received from my peer is simply a metaphor for why it’s so effective regardless of the situation.

Like completing a marathon, you can achieve your goals in business by employing the same approach. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and declare victory as often as possible.

Are You A Learner Or A Judger?

Would you consider yourself a learner or a judger? Let’s face it, most of us are a combination of both. When someone communicates an idea or best practice, we may listen to what they’re saying, but it’s how we listen that really matters.

Do you tend to listen with an open mind and follow-up with questions to gain a complete understanding of what’s being said? Or do you immediately default to evaluation or judging mode, where as the words are being spoken, you’re shooting holes at them. You may think to yourself: “That will never work in my business” or worse yet, you have an ad hominem reaction where you focus your negativity on the person versus that actual content.   You dismiss the idea or proposal because it doesn’t resonate with your worldview or simply as a byproduct of where it came from.

In my work with Leon Shapiro in writing The Power of Peers, I talked with Fredricka Brecht who leads several CEO Peer Advisory Groups in Texas. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with her about learners and judgers:

Fredricka: One of the things that I observe, is people come into these groups with a leaning on either being a person who tends to judge, versus a person who tends to learn. I’ve got a room full of judgers and learners. Part of what I’m coaxing the judgers to do, is to become a learners.   Because if they go through life and they run their companies from a learner standpoint, they’re a better leader of their people. They’re a better coach of their executives, and they are more capable of operating in a safe environment. People who come from a position of judgment have a hard time creating safety for others. Does that make sense?

Leo:     It does, and what I would imagine too, is for the judger, they’re far less likely to want to be vulnerable because they think others are mirroring their behavior, right? They feel like they’re being judged, just like they’re judging others. Or someone who is a learner, feels safe to talk about things, knowing they’re not going to be right all the time, knowing they can make mistakes, and giving others the freedom to do so as well.

As I reflect on that simple exchange, I think about how much I learned by listening to Fredricka that day. While her many insights were invaluable to the book, they also made me step back and consider my own learning versus judging tendencies. I may always have some tendency to judge, but if there’s one thing I’d like to improve upon next year is to be in learner mode far more often.

Think about giving it a try yourself. You might learn something. Happy New Year!

Who Will Your Peers Be In 2016?

Considering it’s the holidays, I’ll keep it short and sweet! This is the time of year when many of us think about New Year’s resolutions and goals for the upcoming twelve months.   This year, I invite you to try something different. For each goal you identify, make a list of the peers who will help you achieve that goal – whether it’s a personal or professional pursuit.

Who you surround yourself with matters, and your peers can play powerful roles depending on what you require.  For example, you may need encouragers – people who will be there to cheer you on when sticking with your goal becomes most challenging. You might find advisors to be effective – peers who have the specific knowledge and/or technical expertise to help you successfully navigate any challenge that may come your way. Or, if you’re the type of person who needs help maintaining the discipline that’s often so necessary to being successful, think about peers as accountability partners. These are people with whom you share the same goal, who can empathize with your highs and lows, yet will relentlessly keep you on course – and vice versa.

Think about the people who are at your side today. Do they lift you up, hold you at bay, or worse yet, drag you down? The more people you surround yourself with who will lift you up, offer you positive guidance, and join you on your journey, the more likely you are to achieve your 2016 goals.  Years ago, Runners’ World writer Joe Henderson said that success isn’t always about doing something extraordinary, it’s usually about doing what anyone can do, but they just don’t. Food for thought as you set your goals and identify the people who will help you realize them.

Happy New Year! May your peers be with you!

What Do You Believe?

The holiday season is a time we often take stock of our experiences over the past year – wins, losses, successes, failures, joys and sorrows. As I reflect on 2015, I can honestly say that I’ve never been more convinced of the power of belief – not religious belief per se – the power of believing in one another and its ability to transform the way we live our lives. During our research for the book The Power of Peers, Leon Shapiro and I found this to be the case, time and time again, in every country where we explored the impact peers have on one another.

Robert Fritz, who is known for the development of structural dynamics and his study of the way relationships impact behavior, says that most of us hold two contrary beliefs that limit our ability to create what we really want in business and in life—powerlessness and unworthiness. Fritz said he’s only met a handful of individuals who don’t have one or the other, and it’s these beliefs that hold us back, regardless of the position we may hold in an organization, and that includes being the CEO.  While that’s a sobering thought, Stanford professor emeritus Albert Bandura may have the antidote here. He credits our peers with our level of self-confidence and self-efficacy.  According to Bandura, we build our confidence largely through social persuasion (when we are convinced by others to believe in ourselves) and social modeling (when we observe others succeeding, thus building confidence that we can also be successful). In short, to realize our full potential as individuals, we need each other.

By surrounding ourselves with the right people, people who model the behaviors to which we aspire and, who are generous enough to share their confidence and belief in us and what we want out of life, feelings of powerlessness and/or unworthiness melt away. I’ve seen it firsthand in my Vistage Inside Group (a group of VPs who meet monthly for a half-day peer advisory group session), and as a graduate student at Northeastern University, where the doctoral faculty inspire a culture of students believing in and supporting one another that’s as effective as I’ve ever seen.

While we define peer advantage as peer influence of a higher order, or expressed another way, as what’s possible when we are more selective, more strategic and more structured about how we engage our peers, peer advantage is fundamentally grounded in supporting and encouraging others.  In 2016, be sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you, and in turn, make every effort to give them the same gift.  During this time of year, while you’ll often hear that it’s better to give than to receive, it may be more accurate to suggest that to receive, you have to give first.

A Case For Peer Advantage

Peer influence is something we’ve experienced for our entire lives, often without a great deal of thought or effort. In the post Peer Advantage Speaks Our Language, I described peer advantage as what can be realized when we engage our peers in a manner that’s more selective, more strategic, and more structured.   That if you want to grow as an individual, become a better leader, and prepare your organization to meet the challenges of the future, surround yourself with a group of peers you respect and who are committed to the same goals, and watch what happens!

This may be true, yet it doesn’t happen automatically. Unless your peer group is able to foster the kind of valuable interaction that can really help you address tough challenges or identify new opportunities, you’re not likely to experience much advantage at all.   One incredibly effective way of inspiring this level of dialogue is through what Etienne & Beverly Wenger-Trayner and others call “Case Clinics.”

You’re probably familiar with the Casebook Method that’s used in law school. Developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, the casebook method is essentially a retrospective analysis of cases that help students grasp principles of the law. By 1920, the case method (which grew out of the casebook method) made its way to Harvard Business School (HBS), but with a very different focus and purpose.

The Case Method used in business schools is prospective in nature. The idea is to take a business case from the past and to place yourself in the position of the protagonist to determine what you may have done under the same circumstances and with limited available information. Students work together in groups to analyze the cases and reach their own conclusions. HBS professor David Garvin once said that the case method helps students “learn how to take a stand.” Today, business schools including HBS, Michigan (Ross), and University of Virginia (Darden), among others, publish case studies used at MBA programs all over the world.

Case Clinics are an important evolution because they not only help build intellectual muscles around judgment, they offer real-world, personal benefits.   As opposed to studying cases from the past, case clinics involve peers working together on their own business challenges in real time, helping those who bring these challenges to the group to arrive at their own solutions. No matter what the issue (whether it directly involves you or not), everyone learns from the experience of participating in the case clinic, and later, learns from what happened after the solution was implemented.   Vistage Chair Chris Noonan once told me that case clinics are valuable in two important ways:  They help you identify a path forward, and they empower you with the courage to act.

The casebook method illustrates why, the case method explores what if, and case clinics dive into what is and what could be. By working with peers who share your commitment to excellence, yet who offer different perspectives, case clinics will help you explore new answers and pressure test innovative solutions in a highly effective manner – hence the case for peer advantage.

Peer Advantage Speaks Our Language

Idioms often serve as metaphors for what people intuitively understand about their socially constructed reality.  And in the English language, when it comes to illustrating the power of peers in our lives, there is no shortage of such expressions: Birds of a feather flock together.  We’re all in the same boat.  We’re known by the company we keep. Great minds think alike. These are among the most common.   More than simple figures of speech, they underscore the fact that the people with whom we surround ourselves matter a great deal. Our friends and colleagues encourage us, compete with us, and share common aspirations.  We are capable of lifting each other up, holding one another at bay, or dragging each other down.  One can easily make the argument that it’s our peers (not our leaders) who have the greatest influence on our success and happiness.

Of course our parents always understood this.  It’s why they were so inquisitive about our friends and classmates.  They knew that even in the ideal parent-child relationship, peers wielded enormous power.  As a teenager, I recall my mother responding to what she observed about my changed behavior (which she attributed to my new best friend) by asking, “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”  I’m guessing you may have heard that (or some version of it) when you were growing up as well.  And while you may not have jumped off a bridge, it’s likely you were led astray a time or two.  Or on the positive side, you studied more and worked harder because of a friend or colleague who led by example.

As we’ve gotten older, none of that has changed.  In fact, because of the digital platforms that connect us, peer influence is more pervasive than ever.   Today, we’re far less inclined to trust institutional experts (if you don’t believe me, check out the results of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer). Instead, we trust the opinions and experiences of peers we’ve never met (fellow readers, students, consumers, etc.).  We trust the prevailing sentiment of these online peers, with whom we have something temporarily in common, with everything from book recommendations and product reviews to which college we should attend and what car we should buy.

Without giving it a second thought or that much effort, we experience the power of peer influence every day. Imagine if we gave it a second thought. Consider what could happen if we were more purposeful about how we harnessed that power. By being more selective, strategic, and structured about how we connect with our peers, we would turn garden-variety peer influence into peer advantage.  The truth is, we can help each other in ways we can’t find anywhere else.

If you want to grow as an individual, become a better leader, and prepare your organization to meet the challenges of the future, engage a group of peers who you respect and who are committed to the same goals, and watch what happens! For those of you who have a story about the difference a peer (or group of peers) made in your life, please share it in a comment and share this post with a peer. Your story, and those like it, may be a dime a dozen, but it’s value to you is likely to be priceless. Tell us about the company you keep and why they matter so much.

Disrupting Disruptive Innovation

I just finished reading a wonderful feature article in HBR’s December 2015 issue titled, What Is Disruptive Innovation? It appears that since Clayton Christensen introduced the theory about twenty years ago, its meaning has taken on a life of its own. This has apparently resulted in frequent misapplication and compromised utility. Michael Raynor and Rory McDonald joined Professor Christensen in answering critics and crafting an article that resets the term and reminds readers of its original definition. While I appreciate the intent of the piece and the value of the debate, I can’t help but question whether the natural evolution of any term, over time, weakens its value (as asserted in the piece) or gives it greater dimension. Why is disrupting disruptive innovation so bad?

When we interviewed Etienne Wenger-Trayner earlier this year for our upcoming book, The Power of Peers, he told us that when he and anthropologist Jean Lave introduced communities of practice in 1991, they gave language to something that was previously difficult to talk about. In the last 25 years or so, the term has evolved because Wenger-Trayner has continued to fine-tune it and because other researchers have contributed their own perspectives.

By describing what CEOs experience when they engage their peers more selectively, more strategically, and in a more disciplined and structured manner, we stood on the shoulders of Wenger-Trayner, Lave, and countless other contributors to expand the vocabulary further by coining the term peer advantage. This was our attempt to give language to what business leaders have been experiencing for decades.

To the writers of What is Disruptive Innovation?, you can split hairs about whether the advent of Uber is disruptive innovation or not based on the segment of the market to which it was introduced or you might consider asking any cab driver instead. In my view, it’s the cab driver who gets to make the call here, not the scholars. Disruptive Innovation is not a static concept, any more than communities of practice or peer advantage. Language is a living, breathing organism that adapts and grows to meet the needs of an ever-evolving society.

Twenty years from now, it’s my hope is that scholars and CEOs alike will build on disruptive innovation, communities of practice, and peer advantage. By contributing their own research and experiences, they will be the ones who will contemporize the concepts and assure their relevance for decades to come.  I’d rather these concepts be part of the language twenty years from now than not.

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